Is That ‘PM2.5’ on Your Grocery Store List?

The terms ‘open data’ and ‘open-source’ get thrown around a lot, but people can mean pretty different things by them. We realized for OpenAQ, it comes down to the fact we function a bit like a grocery store. Hear us out.

Awhile back, we noticed a ton of public air quality data — to the tune of a million data points a day — streaming out into the Internet ether but not shared in a standard format and often not accessible after a given site updates its information. We noticed quite a few groups, from academia to socially-minded organizations to businesses — were collecting these data to build extremely cool stuff.

So, think of the official monitoring groups putting out data like farmers — the ones who actually ‘grow the food’ (or in this case, putting out the delicious data).

Mmm, nothing like the taste of fresh ozone data, fresh from the farm.

And the other groups who mesh the data up with other types of data, process it for cool analyses, and present it up with beautiful and simplified graphics or apps, etc., are kind of like restaurants — they’re making the data into a stylized dish, showcasing their own specific flare and perspective.

Right now, for any specific group to go out and build something with all of that air quality data floating out there, they have to capture it themselves — or sticking with the whole food analogy — they have to track down all of the farmers in order to start their own restaurant, instead of just going to the grocery store. Meanwhile, there are tons of groups that don’t have the tools to grab these data themselves, but, wow, could they build cool stuff and do useful research with it, if they could access them.

And that’s where we see the awesonmeness of an open data, open-source attitude come in. We think that if you want to do a landmark study involving air pollution and economics, build a cool app for your local community, or do something else that we can’t even begin to dream up, it’s key that you have easy access to the right basic ingredients and not have to re-invent the wheel. In our estimation, the best way to do this is to make existing air quality data openly available via an open-source project that gives the community control in shaping it and the project full transparency. That’s what we’re seeking to do with OpenAQ. We help bring the data to you in its most basic, standardized form — physical measurements shared as transparently as possible from their original sources, not interpreted by a single entity’s air quality index system or otherwise unnecessarily processed. And in order to be most useful at this base level, the data needs to be easily sortable and programmatically available, hence our flexible API. Kinda like how a store makes their products easier to find with labelled aisles and products located in reaching distance. This is what we mean by ‘open data;’ after all, data that aren’t accessible, transparently collected and in a useful format aren’t truly ‘open.’

But the grocery store analogy breaks down in a couple of ways. For one, data aggregated to our system are free to anyone, immediately. Full stop. No login process, required written requests, or approval of some groups’ usages versus others’, etc. Also, we don’t think we know all the answers to how these data can be used, how the platform should be created, nor do we think we’ve came up with the *perfect* data format. So, we ask our users to take ownership, shape the platform, and help it evolve. This is the primary reason why we make our project open-source. We also think access to the platform’s code will help people build off of it— or even copy it entirely for other uses. For those of you for whom it makes sense, we hope you will use the platform to share your ‘recipes’ for your most awesome creations so that others around the world can make them for their own communities without having to come up with their recipe from scratch.

So that’s what we mean by ‘open data’ and ‘open-source’ and how we’re kinda like a grocery store. We want to be a one-stop shop where you can come get your air quality data in a standardized, useful form (for free), build stuff off of it, and connect with other awesome folks, dishing up cool and important work in the global fight against air pollution.

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